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Kirkdale Cave
Location Vale of Pickering, North Yorkshire, England
Discovery 1821
Access Entrance is in face of old quarry

Kirkdale Cave is a cave located in Kirkdale near Kirkbymoorside in the Vale of Pickering, North Yorkshire, England. The cave was discovered by workmen in 1821, and was found to contain fossilized bones of a variety of mammals not currently found in Great Britain, including hippopatamus, the farthest north any such remains have ever been found, elephant, and the remains of numerous cave hyenas. William Buckland analyzed the cave and its contents in 1822. He determined that the bones were from the remains of animals brought into the cave by hyenas who had been using it for a den, and not a result of the biblical flood floating animal remains in from distant lands as had first been thought. His reconstruction of an ancient eco-system from detailed analysis of fossil evidence was admired at the time, and considered to be an example of how geohistorical reasearch should be done.


Contents of the cave

Hippotamus. Kirkdale Cave is the northernmost site where remains have been found

The fossil bones found in the cave included elephants, hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses, hyenas, bison, giant deer, smaller mammals and birds.[1] This is the northernmost site in the world where hippopotamus remains have been found.[2] It also included a considerable amount of fossilized hyena feces. The fossiized remains were embedded in a silty layer sandwiched between layers of stalagmite.[3]

Discovery and analysis

William Conybeare drew this cartoon of Buckland poking his head into a prehistoric hyena den in 1822 to celebrate Buckland's ground breaking analysis of the fossils found in Kirkdale Cave.[4]

The entrance to the cave was found by limestone quarry workers in the summer of 1821. The quarry workers assumed that the abundant bones buried in the cave floor were the remains of cattle that had been dumped in the cave after dying from some past epidemic. They used some of the bones to fill potholes in a nearby road, where an amateur naturalist noticed them and realized that they were not the remains of livestock. This attracted the attention of numerous fossil collectors. Some of the fossils were sent to William Clift the curator of the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons; he identified some of the bones as the remains of hyenas larger than any of the modern species. At the same time William Buckland was told about the cave and shown some of the fossils by a colleague at Oxford.[3]

Buckland began his investigation believing that the fossils in the cave were diluvial, that is that they had been deposited there by a deluge that had washed them from far away, possibly the Biblical flood. However, upon further investigation he realized that the cave had never been open to the surface through its roof, and that the only entrance that had ever been open to the outside world was too small for the carcasses of animals as large as elephants or hippos to have floated in. He began to suspect that the animals had lived in the local area, and that the hyenas had used the cave as a den and brought in remains of the various animals they fed on. This hypothesis was supported by the fact that many of the bones showed signs of having been gnawed prior to fossilization, and by the presence of objects Buckland suspected to be fossilized hyena dung. Further analysis, including comparison with the dung of modern spotted hyenas living in menageries, confirmed the identification of the fossilized dung.[3]

He published his analysis in an 1822 paper he read to the Royal Society.[4] A few days before reading the formal paper he gave the following colorful account at a dinner held by the Geological Society:

The hyaenas, gentlemen, preferred the flesh of elephants, rhinoceros, deer, cows, horses, etc., but sometimes, unable to procure these, & half starved, they used to come out of the narrow entrance of their cave in the evening down to the water's edge of a lake which must once have been there, & so helped themselves to some of the innumerable water-rats in wh[ich] the lake abounded.[5]

He developed these ideas further in his 1823 book Reliquiae Diluvianae; or, Observations on the organic remains contained in caves, fissures, and diluvial gravel, and on other geological phenomena, attesting the action of an universal deluge, challenging the belief that the bones were brought to the cave by Noah's flood and providing detailed evidence that instead hyenas had used the cave as a den into which they brought the bones of their prey.[6]

Impact and legacy

The specimens were an original part of the archaeology collection of the Yorkshire Museum and it is said that "the scientific interest aroused founded the Yorkshire Philosophical Society".[7] While criticized by some, Buckland's analysis of Kirkland Cave and other bone caves was widely seen as a model for how careful analysis could be used to reconstruct the earth's past, and the Royal Society awarded Buckland the Copley Medal in 1822 for his Kirkdale paper.[3] At the presentation the society's president, Humphry Davy, said:

by these inquiries, a distinct epoch has, as it were, been established in the history of the revolutions of our globe: a point fixed from which our researches may be pursued through the immensity of ages, and the records of animate nature, as it were, carried back to the time of the creation.[8]


The cave is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Geological Conservation Review site.

The Saxon St Gregory's Minster with its unusual sundial is nearby.


  1. ^ MY learning: Learning with Museums, Libraries and Archives in Yorkshire. "Ideas and Evidence in Science: The Kirkdale Cave: Discovery of the cave". Retrieved 2007-10-15.  
  2. ^ Natural England. "SSSI citation details for Kirkdale cave" (PDF). Retrieved 2007-10-15.  
  3. ^ a b c d Rudwick, Martin Bursting The Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution (2005) pp. 622-638
  4. ^ a b Rudwick, Martin Scenes from Deep Time (1992) pp. 38-42
  5. ^ Rudwick, Martin Bursting The Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution (2005) p. 630
  6. ^ Oxford University Museum of Natural History. "Learning more:William Buckland" (PDF). p. 3. Retrieved 2007-10-15.  
  7. ^ MY learning: Learning with Museums, Libraries and Archives in Yorkshire. "Ideas and Evidence in Science: The Kirkdale Cave: Book that changed the world". Retrieved 2007-10-15.  
  8. ^ Rudwick, Martin Bursting The Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution (2005) p. 631

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